The Beats of August

Beat Generation-related books remain a healthy cottage industry, and I’ve got three non-fiction books, one poetry tribute, one novel and one personal memoir to review. Here are six new titles, ordered from my most favorite to my least:

1. The Lost Years of William S. Burroughs: Beats in South Texas by Rob Johnson is a thoroughly original chronicle of a little-known phase in the life of 20th Century genius William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was a rootless wonder, endlessly molting from St. Louis to Boston to New York City to New Orleans to Texas to Tangier, and the seven years he spent as an anonymous farmer in South Texas is the focus of this book. Scenes from this period were featured in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, but The Lost Years is the first biographical book to focus specifically on this phase of Burroughs’ life. Johnson interviews many of Burroughs’ Texas neighbors, most of whom remember him well and are surprised to learn anything ever became of the strange guy. Johnson is a good storyteller, and many stories revolve around a nightclub called Joe’s Place (where somebody gets killed by a lion). Mostly, Johnson should be commended for writing a book with a clear reason to exist: it tells us stuff we didn’t already know.

2. Malcolm and Jack is an ambitious experimental novel by Ted Pelton, a poet from Buffalo, published by Spuytin Duyvil. The concept is a killer: a young unknown writer named Jack Kerouac meets a young pimp named Malcolm “Detroit Red” Little, soon to be known as Malcolm X, at a Billie Holiday concert. This meeting might have actually taken place, though the story is entirely imagined. The treatment reminds me of Don DeLillo, which is to say it’s not a straight-ahead narrative, and the medium is at least half of the message. There’s a back cover blurb by Daniel Nester, and in fact the book’s elliptical approach towards its topic reminds me of Nester’s writings about Queen. This is an absorbing treatment of a great premise.

3. Young, Female, Travelling Alone is a travel memoir by Anne-Marie Manuela Pop. It’s clear from the first few pages that traveling the world has been the author’s spiritual salvation, and the book reads like a passionate personal testament. As the book begins the author is a depraved, jaded young raver in Paris, but she finds the depth she’s looking for by taking off to Asia. Pop’s short descriptions of places like Cambodia, Goa, Malaysia and Anjuna Beach are easy to read, though I wish the language were more distinctive. The author is also keeping her website updated, and I really like this picture of a Jain religious ceremony involving naked monks.

4. Howl For Now is a tribute to “Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem” edited by Simon Warner. It’s an intelligent and attractive book (I love the cover, actually) and I like most of the pieces within, including those by David Meltzer, Steven Taylor, Ronald Nameth and Simon Warner himself. The book was published by Route in the U.K., and it’s nice to see a book on this poem from the British Isles (which welcomed Howl more readily than America did in the 50’s and 60’s). My only gripe is that I still feel this one Ginsberg poem is over-emphasized, which is why I already criticized another book about Howl earlier this year. I’d much rather see a book about a wider range of Ginsberg’s work. Regardless, Howl For Now is a solid volume that can stand alongside the other recently published book mentioned above, and both books would probably have made Allen himself proud.

5. The Road Story and the Rebel is a study of the wide legacy of “road stories” by a professor named Katie Mills, published by Southern Illinois University Press. I like the book’s diverse range (from Kerouac to Easy Rider to Beavis and Butthead Do America) and I think Mills is right to focus centrally on the Merry Pranksters’ great bus ride across America in 1964. So I should love this book, but I have trouble with the academic format and the professorial voice. Why not publish something like this through Soft Skull, run more photos, leave out the footnotes? A book about roadtripping should be more fun than this one is.

6. Try as hard as I might, I am not able to look at Michael Hrebeniak’s Action Writing: Jack Kerouac’s Wild Form without noting that we’ve been running a poetry forum called Action Poetry here on LitKicks since the summer of 2001, and that we published a book called Action Poetry (with a foreword by Jack Kerouac’s musical collaborator David Amram) in 2004. The phrase alludes to Jackson Pollock’s concept of “Action Painting”, and this is also the basic metaphor that drives Hrebeniak’s book. Well, okay, Darwin and Wallace and all that, great minds think alike, but let it be said that we had a five year jump on this book. Anyway, Action Writing is an academic treatment of the topic of spontaneous composition, and despite my professional objection to the book’s title I will say that it looks like a fairly serious and well-organized academic work on the subject, if that’s what you’re looking for. (Or you could write us a poem instead.)

4 Responses

  1. Guess which one I want to
    Guess which one I want to read…

    It’s Burroughs, for me. He’s like a monkey on my back. Let me tell you about Texas and the Big Beat. I might have to burn a special CD for this excursion – ZZ Top, The Doors, Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Velvet Underground.

    Check out this excerpt from The Nova Express:

    “I was traveling with The Intolerable Kid on The Nova Lark – We were on the nod after a rumble in The Crab Galaxy involving this two-way time stock; when you come to the end of a biologic film just run it back and start over – Nobody knows the difference – Like nobody there before the film. So they start to run it back and the projector blew up and we lammed out of there on the blast – Holed up in those cool blue mountains the liquid air in our spines listening to a little high-fi junk note fixes you right to metal and you nod out a thousand years.”

    — William S. Burroughs

  2. Burroughs foreverBurroughs
    Burroughs forever

    Burroughs was a singlar man and writer, as Billectric points out. I knew him slightly and miss him. The new Texas book is a clear winner – I learned a lot, and that’s saying something. Definitely read Jennie Skerl’s ‘William Burroughs’ (Twayne) for a clear, rigorous discussion of the Nova trilogy and other difficult works without the academic nonsense.

    The new Neal Cassady bio has a lot of information, but I’ve found flagrant errors in the brief sections on Burroughs and Huncke that make me wonder about the accuracy of the material on Neal.

    I’ll get and read the novel you recommend. Remember ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile,’ a play by Steve Martin? Picasso and Einstein duke it out. (Picasso: My work will change the world! Einstein: Oh, and mine won’t?)

  3. I’ll look for the Jennie
    I’ll look for the Jennie Skerl book as well as the new Texas book on Burroughs. I also recommend recordings of Burroughs reading excerpts from his books. My favoriate is the 3-CD set from John Giorno. It helps to clarify his vision.

  4. amusing choiceMalcom and Jack
    amusing choice

    Malcom and Jack seems like a very interesting (yet, some what laughable) idea. Could be a spawn of a new genre. Interrelations between great personas of literary, revolutionary, etc. acclaim. Could be interesting. Like Young Guns did for the old west.

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